Jonathan Meades wades in to save Teignmouth

Jonathan Meades - film and documentary maker, writer and journalist writes:

"I still rue the destruction of Brunel's great viaduct in the west Somerset village of Waterrow which once carried the Taunton to Barnstable railway. It was destroyed by offcially sanctioned vandalism​ in the late 1960s.

Plus ca change and so on. It's 2020 and Network Rail, who have learnt nothing,​ are attempting to casually destroy yet another of Brunel’s great megastructures, the seawall and cobbled walkway that snakes along the Devon coast between Holcombe and Teignmouth and forms part of his South Devon Railway and the South West Coastal path. They say it is part of ‘resilience’ works.​

As Brunel mapped out the route for his line south of Exeter, he soon realised that the smoke and dust from steam trains would cause genteel displeasure in the newly-fledged health resorts of Teignmouth and Dawlish.​ His answer was the introduction of the experimental atmospheric railway to South Devon, which futuristically propelled engineless carriages along wide gauge tracks using a network of pumping stations. A few of the elements of this failed railway system have survived, but none is more hugely impressive than the wall itself. Although the atmospheric railway wasn’t able to endure the harsh elements and the relentless salt spray, the mighty wall did endure.​

It's not to be confused with the wall at Dawlish, which has been much altered and upgraded over the years, the section between Holcombe and Teignmouth, has formed an unremittingly elegant buttress at the foot of the cliffs for 150 years.

This Brunel structure is part of a scape of wild red sandstone​ cliffs, ferocious seas and Victorian solidity, just as Brunel, with grim determination, imagined it would be. Huge chunks of Haytor granite and limestone, sit on an expanse of fine red sand with ever changing seas beyond; sometimes explosive, sometimes serene.

Unlike the Dawlish section of the wall which has suffered a pounding from the sea, this section is apparently vulnerable to rock fall and Network Rail are hoping to spend half a billion pounds burying Brunel’s wall, and half of the red sand beach that flanks it, in environmentally unforgiving concrete. This ham-fisted, sledge-hammer wielding plan is proposed in order to move the line away from the cliffs and further out into the thrashing sea.

It is hard to understand why this great Victorian brainchild, an industrial Stonehenge, would not be preserved and cherished for generations.​ ​ Actually it's not that hard. Its continued existence would acheive no kudos for the Prime Minister in the way that a bridge across the Irish Sea might or HS2 might."

JONATHAN MEADES. English writer and film and documentary maker, primarily on the subjects of place, culture, architecture.

Jonathan Meades - English writer and film and documentary maker, primarily on the subjects of place, culture and architecture.


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